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‘Welcome to Radio Free Iraq’

November 27, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When it comes to learning about the rest of the world, Iraqis have had virtually no choices beyond tightly controlled government outlets.

The Clinton administration is trying to add at least a U.S. point of view to the alternatives with a new program, Radio Free Iraq, part of an expanding effort to weaken President Saddam Hussein’s grip on his people.

For the past four weeks, Iraqis have been able to hear Arabic-language news and commentary on a 45-minute daily broadcast from studios in Prague. They are patterned along the lines of the U.S.-sponsored broadcasts to communist countries during the Cold War.

``We are using truth and accuracy to fight propaganda,″ says David Newton, director of the Prague-based station. ``The goal is to promote democracy, to let the Iraqi people hear different opinions.″

The broadcasts and a similar program beamed into Iran have caused some security concerns in Prague. The new Czech government agreed to allow the broadcasts but asked broadcasters to look into moving out of a densely populated residential area.

The broadcasts into Iran drew immediate criticism from Seyyed Jafar Hashemi, Iran’s ambassador in the Czech Republic, who called them ``an act of aggression against the government and people of Iran by the United States.″

Iraqi authorities are not known to have commented on Radio Free Iraq.

Newton says Radio Free Iraq is getting no real feedback from its listeners and does not expect quick results. ``This is a long-term proposition,″ he says.

The new radio station’s mandate is to provide news and commentary that is ``not inconsistent″ with U.S. government policy, says Paul Gobel, a high official of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the entity that beamed broadcasts into communist countries during the Cold War and has continued operations in the post-communist era.

Working with a $5 million budget, Radio Free Iraq is off to a modest start. It offers a rerun of the 45-minute program later in the day and plans to expand the broadcast to three hours next year.

Gobel says it is impossible to measure listenership in Iraq.

``We will know that we matter if we are attacked,″ he says.

One anti-Saddam stratagem the administration will avoid is using Radio Free Iraq to call on the Iraqi masses to rise up against their leader.

Gobel says that approach has been ruled out since the United States got into international broadcasting early on in the Cold War.

The broadcasts, he adds, ``may seem bland to someone accustomed to a free press but to an Iraqi who is constantly fed propaganda, it’s revolutionary.″

Radio Free Iraq has been incorporated under the RFE/RL umbrella, bringing to 21 the number of services it operates. A network of stringers has been assembled in a number of countries to contribute to the newscasts.

From within Iraq, the station expects to use e-mail and other means to cover developments in predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq, a hotbed of anti-Saddam sentiment. The Shiite population of southern Iraq is equally hostile to Saddam, but coverage opportunities for Radio Free Iraq there are less promising.

The station is one of several manifestations of an administration attempt to increase pressure on Iraq beyond military threats and U.N. sanctions which, after eight years, appear to have done little to destabilize the regime.

The administration also is prepared to provide support for democratic Iraqi groups opposed to Saddam. Congress has authorized $97 million in military assistance for such groups. The administration also is gathering evidence for possible U.N. prosecutions of Iraqis suspected of committing crimes against humanity in Kuwait and elsewhere.

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